Tuesday, November 18, 2008

canto iii

The third canto contains what the most recognizable line in "The Divine Comedy," and possibly one of the best-known lines in Western literature. It is the sign above the entrance to hell: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here."

That line encapsulates the miserific vision of hell: no hope, no escape, just unrelenting torment, day after day, year after year, until even the mountains have been worn down to grains of sand, and even then, there is no relief. The finality of such a sentence is one of the reasons I don't particularly care for the doctrine of hell.

As avoidable a fate as it may be to those who set the doctrines, an eternity of searing torment is still too much, too late. The torments of Dante's hell offer no redemption to those incarcerated there, as the sufferings of this life may; nor is there an escape, as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle provide in their own "Inferno" novel.

And yet readers have returned to "The Divine Comedy" for centuries, despite objections to the severity of hell.

A lot of the reason for the poem's appeal begins to come clear in this very canto. Alighieri uses some apocalyptic imagery in Canto I, placing savage animals in Dante's path that commentators see as representing both political states and worldly vices; and Canto II saw garden-variety mysticism in the intercession Beatrice makes on Dante's account to rescue him from the dark wood; but so far we have seen none of the turn-your-head sorts of images that we associate with "The Inferno." Until now.

Here at the entrance to the land of the dead, unearthly moans assault Dante's ears with a din that he renders in a manner both poignant and unsettling. The people uttering these tormented cries run through the vestibule of hell, stung by hornets and wasps as they chase a banner that flutters in the breeze, just beyond their reach. Their tears mix with blood as they fall to the ground, where they are consumed by worms.

And this picturesque torment is just what occurs in the vestibule to hell. The sin for which these people are being tormented is merely one of cowardice. Those punished could not bring themselves either to follow God nor to live lives of open sin. Virgil likens them to angels who neither fought with God when Satan rebelled, nor sided with the devil. The price of their cowardice is that neither heaven nor hell will admit them.

And in this procession of banner-chasers is where we find a cipher for one layer of interpretation of "The Inferno." Dante claims to recognize several members of the crowd, but comments only on one, whom he accuses of "cowardice in making the great refusal." Alighieri makes no further comment on this, but commentators apparently believe it was Pope Celestine V, who resigned the papal office five months later and gave it to Pope Boniface VIII..

From what I can tell, Celestine V's papcy is remarkable only for its brevity. The issue Alighieri has with Celestine seems to be solely that he relinquished his papal office. And to a man like Dante, who took a bullet not once, briefly, but over much of his adult life, for his views, that decision to reject the Seat of Peter must have been not only incomprehensible, but reprehensible as well.

And, after all, what is hell is all about? Setting aside our theological basis for hell, the people we most would like to see in hell are the people who are unlike us. A hundred years ago in the United States, native fundamentalists conflated dislike of hard-drinking Irish workers and Italian immigrants, with religious differences that Protestants have the Roman Catholic Church, and condemn them all.

Today it's not uncommon to hear conservative preachers calling down God's wrath upon pro-choices, gays and lesbians, and environmentalists; or for liberal Christians to get snarky and suggest that when things go wrong for the GOP, it's because conservatives aren't following God. Hell's a great place to send people who aren't like us, because they clearly deserve it. If they didn't, they would be more like us.

Canto III is also where we see Alighieri begin to draw more fully upon Greco-Roman mythology to flesh out his vision of hell, from its soteriography to its personalities. Virgil here refers to the Acheron, one of the rivers that flowed through Hades; and Dante himself beholds Charon, the ancient oarsman whose job it was to ferry the dead across the River Styx.

A widely held religious view in the Middle Ages was that anyone who worshiped pagan gods actually was worshiping a devil, a belief Alighieri indulges in his poem, if not actually embracing it. He portrays Charon not just as an old man, but as a devil "with eyes of glowing coal," with no patience or pity for any who dawdle.

The entire experience is too much for poor Dante. Although he had resolved at the end of Canto II to put aside fear, he notes that even years after this experience occurred, he still trembles at its mere recollection. Now having crossed the Styx a living man, he is witness an earthquake accompanied by a bright light, and he passes out.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Dave Block said...

"The finality of such a sentence is one of the reasons I don't particularly care for the doctrine of hell. As avoidable a fate as it may be to those who set the doctrines, an eternity of searing torment is still too much, too late."

I find hell a very hard doctrine to handle, but I believe in it. What do you believe about hell?

marauder said...

I've written a little poetically about hell, but I doubt that answers your question, which is more soteriological or doctrinal in nature than experiential.

I think hell as it is popularly depicted in American culture, even in church culture, is not a particularly biblical concept. It's nothing like in Dante or the other popular depictions of human souls being tormented day and night in gruesomely poetic scenarios.

Hell is one of many concepts I'm trying to understand better, not just what I've heard at churches, but what what Jesus' audience understood when he talked about it.

The word the New Testament writers use to describe hell is gehenna (as opposed to hades, which stands as an approximation of the Hebrew Sheol). Gehenna, named after the valley of gihinnom, precedes Christianity in rabbinic thought as a final resting place of the unrighteous dead. Gihinnom was not a place of great torment as much as it is a garbage dump, where the people of Jerusalem would dispose of their garbage and where the bodies of convicted criminals were thrown. The dump smoldered, as dumps will, and was home to packs of wild dogs that would fight over food they found, making noises described in extrabiblical literature as "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Jesus deliberately tapped into this imagery in several of his parables where he talks about divine judgment; i.e., not as a place of special torment, but a place where refuse and executed criminals were consigned.

As for the nature of judgment itself, I think Lewis had a pretty good picture of that in "The Great Divorce." In our lives now we already are moving in a direction that takes either closer to God or further away; at the Day of Judgment, our direction becomes completely clear and fully realized, and we discover that our time on earth was spent moving deeper into hell, or that it was spent becoming more fully real and what we were intended to be, in the Kingdom of God.

Whether we head one way or the other is pretty simple, really. God has appointed his son Jesus to be ruler and savior of all the earth, and he is calling everyone to follow him. Following him means moving closer to God, because that is Christ's desire. Not following him -- not pursuing that perfect shalom with Christ and with other people -- that puts us on the wrong path.

How's that for an answer?